Nick Leeson is back. Photo, YouTube
Nick Leeson is back. Photo, YouTube

Nick Leeson’s clock, stopped for 22 years, just began ticking again, at least on Twitter.

Stopped timepieces are right twice a day. In the case of the former derivatives broker who brought down a 223-year-old British bank, make that roughly every two decades.

Leeson’s undoing involved a fateful bet on a Nikkei rally when he ran the Singapore trading desk for Barings Bank. He bet big in a desperate ploy to recoup huge losses he’d been hiding. And badly. On the morning of January 17, 1995, a massive earthquake in Kobe sent the Nikkei into a tailspin.

London’s oldest merchant bank quickly failed under the weight of $1.4 billion of losses. Leeson fled to Malaysia and Thailand before being arrested in Frankfurt.

The episode left the masters of the financial universe red-faced and disoriented about how, oh how, one rogue staffer could kill an institution that held an account for Queen Elizabeth and helped finance Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase from France.

Leeson now makes a living advising companies on (wait for it) risk.

Leeson now makes a living advising companies on (wait for it) risk.

On Wednesday, @TheNickLeeson tweeted: “Nikkei225 at highest level today since 1996 — probably not far off my break-even point. If only they’d waited!!”

That ignited a bull market in internet snarking.

Among my favorite tweets, from @mattwallalpha: “Congrats @TheNickLeeson. Didn’t some economist say something about the market staying irrational longer than you can stay solvent…?”

And from @legendmikel: “21 years to break-even. Think you should try another career.” But the most intriguing might be this one from @dbarlon: “Possibly the greatest troll tweet ever sent. Golden.”

Great troll indeed, considering Japan is just nine days away from a highly impactful election that could say much about whether irrational exuberance is boosting the Nikkei or if improving economic conditions are cheering investors.

To me, Leeson is a financial “Forrest Gump,” a film that was playing in Singapore just as his hidden losses were mounting.

His name came up early and often when Asia imploded in 1997, back when Bank of Thailand and others were exposed as acting more like hedge funds hiding losses than central banks.

Ditto for 1998, when Long-Term Capital Management blew up. I can remember attending Federal Reserve events around that time and hearing top monetary officials lamenting that markets hadn’t learned enough from the Barings debacle.

Fast forward to mid-2015, when Leeson managed to tick off Chinese officials.

In speeches and interviews, Leeson warned Beijing stocks were rising faster than the financial system could handle. Shanghai stocks, it’s worth noting, did indeed crash that year, showing Beijing’s regulatory system to be swimming naked in the Warren Buffett sense.

Leeson’s timely – or untimely, perhaps – return to the Nikkei conversation has cyberspace aflutter.

And not always in flattering terms, as this reaction from Zero Hedge, with time-capsule references to O.J. Simpson and the Leeson-inspired “Rogue Trader” film: “At least he has kept his sense of humor about it. I doubt Barings Bank shareholders find it quite so funny, yet it did give us a thrilling trader-turned-OJ chase through Southeast Asia, and a not-half-bad-Ewan-McGregor movie. And here we are, some two decades later, and Nick is finally almost even on his trade.”

Will Prime Minister Shinzo Abe be, too? Nearly five years into his Abenomics production, the Nikkei is racing higher.

That’s largely because of the Bank of Japan’s titanically-large liquidity infusions and direct purchases of untold quantities of exchange-traded funds. Yes, the BOJ is acting rather hedge-fund-like. Whether the ends of the public sector dominating private share markets justify the means is debatable.

Less debatable is that the Abenomics revival is largely a 1% phenomenon.

Average household wages have barely risen since December 2012, making the Oct. 22 a referendum on economic conditions. It’s a moment to ask whether the Nikkei’s 26% surge this year is running ahead of underlying fundamentals.

The odds are that the Nikkei has indeed gotten well ahead of itself amid stagnant wages and tepid consumer spending.

Either way, Leeson’s suggestion the Nikkei has further to go has Twitter folks fearing the 50-year-old might be a contrarian indicator.

Quipped @4Awesometweet: “If your money is invested with a firm that has a trading arm, this is your wakeup call.”

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